The U.S. government is moving ahead with a plan to give American international development workers special forces training so they’ll be better equipped to operate in hostile environments.
Under the plan, the Agency for International Development would develop rapid expeditionary development teams, or RED teams, that would work with or in close proximity of elite forward operating intelligence and combat teams.
A 2018 USAID report quoted a veteran agency officer who supported the idea:
We have to be involved in national security or USAID will not be relevant. Anybody who doesn’t think we need to be working in combat elements or working with SF (special forces) groups is just naïve. We are either going to be up front or irrelevant… USAID is going through a lot right now, but this is an area where we can be of utility. It must happen.
Others were skeptical.
Some intelligence community, or IC, and USAID personnel said civilian-military collaboration should be limited to “preserve USAID’s development mission and reputation.”
The report said:
One IC member plainly stated, “If I were the USAID Administrator, I wouldn’t get into this. You put an X on the back of every USAID officer… If I were CIA Director, I would say, ‘is it worth it?’” The individual recommended that USAID engage in detailed risk planning to define worst-case outcomes if a pilot is entertained. A former Chief of Station advised, “…define your failures… know your human risks, your operational risks, your program risks, and your political risks” when considering working with a community that can cross political boundaries clandestinely without political fallout.
Another interviewee quoted in the report questioned whether RED team members would be accountable. “What if they went rogue?” the interviewee asked.
USAID and the Department of Defense have a working relationship going back to the 1960s. Some critics say USAID’s ties with the military – including its Office of Civilian-Military Cooperation – could undermine the trust of foreign governments.
USAID’s work in Latin America has drawn controversy over the years.
Earlier this month, the agency began sending tons of aid to Colombia and planned to haul it across the border into Venezuela in support of Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president of the country.
U.S. officials have recognized Guaidó as president even though he has not been elected. They say they want to force out President Nicolás Maduro, who has badly mismanaged Venezuela’s economy.
Some critics fear USAID’s humanitarian mission is somehow intertwined with possible military intervention.
Devex, a leading website on international development, reported on USAID’s 2018 study on Tuesday. The agency told Devex that the RED teams proposal was moving ahead, stating:
We are still working on the details in formulating the Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) Teams initiative. As a learning organization, USAID is reviewing the insights from the report and others to reflect on approaches like red teaming and their value to USAID moving forward.
RED team members would undergo physical fitness training and would be required to:
- Walk 3 miles with a 50 lb. pack in 45 minutes or less
- Drag a 180 lb. dummy 20 yards in 20 seconds or less
- Lift a 60 lb. dead weight bag from the floor and place on a wall of 5 feet repeating 4 times in 1 minute or less
They would have 90 minutes to complete all three tasks.
RED team members would also receive training in weapons handling and use, emergency first aid and other areas.
The study stated:
From the Vietnam War to today’s crisis in Syria, the United States Government (USG) has experimented with various expeditionary models for mobilizing its development personnel alongside their military and interagency colleagues to unleash their unique capabilities for stabilization, reconstruction, and counterinsurgency (COIN) missions. As the lead implementer of development and humanitarian assistance for the USG since 1961, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is a key interlocutor for mobilizing civilian personnel in non-permissive environments (NPEs).
In a risk-adverse post-Benghazi world, designing and building right-sized capabilities to effectively anticipate, plan for, and respond to crises unfolding across a wide spectrum of contexts is an enormous challenge and one that has frequently bedeviled the USG. It is especially complex to do so within an interagency ecosystem where varied cultures collide and personnel speak different organizational languages. Today, the number of USG civilian personnel focused on COIN and countering violent extremism (CVE) in high-threat environments is extremely limited.
It is a profound institutional challenge to get USG civilian personnel with mission-critical skillsets to the contexts and the communities they seek to serve. Ironically, the net effect of limiting access in insecure environments may be making civilian personnel less secure and their critical missions less effective.
In response to the devastating absence of COIN and CVE-focused USG civilian personnel in critical NPEs, USAID’s Global Development Lab (Lab) has proposed a new Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) Team concept. Unlike existing USAID officers working in permissive and semi-permissive environments, RED Team members would be specifically recruited and trained to deliver novel techniques, practices, and tools optimized to secure communities vulnerable to violent extremist radicalization and exploitation. It is envisioned that the priority competency of proposed RED Team development officers would be social movement theory (SMT), followed by counter- network analysis and community engagement in support of hyper-localized programming. Importantly, RED Team members would be able to design, fund, and implement activities immediately in response to urgent and pressing requirements as opposed to working by, with, and through implementing partners via contracting or grant mechanisms.
RED Team development officers would be deployed as two-person teams and placed with “non-traditional” USAID partners executing a mix of offensive, defensive, and stability operations in extremis conditions. As proposed, RED Team members would be catalytic actors, performing development activities alongside local communities while coordinating with interagency partners. Members would also reach back to USAID to determine how Missions or Bureaus could best leverage the knowledge, insights, relationships and small gains they generate. RED Team personnel would be able to live and work in austere environments for extended periods of time and actively contribute to their own security and welfare. They would be deployed farther forward than USAID personnel traditionally deploy and would routinely operate under the authority of the host agency with whom they deploy, acting in accordance with their security posture.
There are many potential benefits RED Teams might offer interagency partners but more importantly is the benefit RED Teams can provide USAID. Two advantages worth underscoring and seriously considering include:
- Red Teams could provide USAID with a direct, government-to-government reporting channel from denied environments to inform national security dialogue in Washington. USAID should consider how best to design the reporting function from RED Teams to Washington and leverage it strategically. This could also be messaged as a differentiator when seeking an interagency partner to help fund the RED Team pilot as several entities may be seeking direct/strategic connectivity between field operations and the situation room; and
- RED Team members could become “super enablers” by re-creating USAID’s long-lost “doing capacity.” This would require them to reach-back into USAID and leverage its talent and many assets – data, maps, leaders, knowledge networks, lessons, and thought-leadership – and contribute to these in a reciprocal relationship after returning from deployment. This model offers another tool in USAID’s toolkit and further diversifies the distinct yet complementary approaches that can be leveraged in NPEs by its officers.
RED Team members would be “super enablers,” observing situations on the ground and responding immediately by designing, funding, and implementing small-scale activities. They would also have “reach back” to USAID to link up efforts with additional development programming streams that could amplify or build on their immediate efforts.